Friday 8 June 2012

Movie Review: Boogie Nights (1997)

A journey through the heyday of the pornographic film industry, Boogie Nights pays homage and shares a laugh at the expense of an industry transitioning from scummy cinemas to the video players of mainstream America. It is also one of the best films of the 1990s.

It is the late 1970s, and seventeen year old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a working as a busboy in a San Fernando Valley nightclub. Eager to escape from a dysfunctional home and extremely well endowed where it matters, Adams accepts an invitation from porn film director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) to join the industry. Adopting the screen name of Dirk Diggler, Adams quickly becomes the biggest star in porn films. As the seventies turn into the eighties, the industry is transformed by video, while drug addiction and a falling out with Horner trigger a rapid reversal in Diggler's fortunes.

Paul Thomas Anderson's second feature film elevated him to the front ranks of directors. Working from his own script, Anderson creates in Boogie Nights a character-rich environment, with memorable personalities grappling with the changing times within a burgeoning industry. The rise and fall of Dirk Diggler is just the surface story. Anderson builds a rich, multi-layered universe, with plenty of depth to all the assorted weirdos and misfits that congregate around porn manufacturing.

The veteran performer (Julianne Moore as Amber Wave), the nubile next young thing (Heather Graham as Rollergirl), the grizzled director (Reynolds as Horner) still yearning to make art, the loyal co-star (John C. Reilly as Reed Rothchild), the producer (Robert Ridgley as Colonel James) with more money than sense and a weakness for underage girls, the eager gofer (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scotty J) too dim to do anything else in life except lust after Diggler, the assistant director (William H. Macy as Little Bill Thompson) married to an aging performer who does not hesitate to have sex with any other man, the porn star (Don Cheadle as Buck Swope) who wants to do something better and different in life, and the financier (Philip Baker Hall as Floyd Gondolli) sharp enough to spot the emergence of video and its huge implications to the industry.

Incredibly, these are only some of the people and stories that Anderson makes time for in Boogie Nights. They all come to life naturally, hustling to make a buck, facing their demons or succumbing to them, adapting or dying, in a business that is unforgiving, awash in drugs, enormously popular and yet almost entirely hidden.

The performances from the stellar cast are uniformly captivating, none more so than Wahlberg. Announcing his arrival as a movie star after an initial career as a rapper, Wahlberg portrays Adams with sensitivity, bravado mixed with fragility, Adams' wide-eyed amazement at the surrounding circus balanced by his natural affinity for the role of male porn star. Julianne Moore also delivers a memorable performance, Amber standing at the cusp of has-been status, transitioning to the role of mentor for Adams and mother figure for Rollergirl, while fighting for custody of her son. Burt Reynolds rejuvenated his career with his turn as Jack Horner, a man too old for the profession and refusing to give up on the dream of creating art, but savvy enough to spot raw talent and move with the times when needed.

The sex scenes are dealt with in the matter-of-fact manner that only the porn industry can conjure, and yet Anderson finds the soft seam where real people meet their on-screen personas: Amber guiding Adams through his first ever scene is a triumph of sex-as-work having to overcome vulnerability with sheer courage and compassion.

Despite a running time of 155 minutes, Boogie Nights is breezy, entertaining and often funny. Although the decline and fall of Diggler is less enjoyable than his spectacular rise, Anderson keeps the narrative brisk and the multiple stories progressing, while a deep soundtrack of era favourites provides a vibrant musical backdrop. Boogie Nights dances up an impressive sweat.

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